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ISES Conference, Saumur, DAY 1

We’re here in Saumur and at the end of Day 1 of the International Society of Equitation Science conference.


The French National Riding School is a beautiful venue with arenas galore and beautiful horses everywhere. The conference takes place in a lovely big indoor arena with wooden architecture, high ceilings, and gorgeous arched skylights. As we sit and listen to the speakers, we can hear the clip-clop of horse hooves walking outside. It’s a nice place to be!


We started off the day listening Sue McDonnell delivery a summary of the first ISES principle of training: Take into account the horse’s ethology and cognition. It’s nice to hear such an in-depth summary on this first principle.

Sue studies wild groups of horses to gain a clearer understanding of their ethology, and the findings are really interesting. Some points I noted from her talk:

  • as a prey animal, they are very good at muting signs of pain (to avoid showing weakness to predators). This is an important point to consider as horse riders and trainers. Do our horses experience more pain than they let on?
  • Horses in a wild environment spend only 30-60 minutes per 24 hour period standing still. Even when the pasture is lush and nutritional, they are constantly on the move. Exercising stabled/yarded horse’s or putting it on a treadmill/walker is not sufficient to replace their limited movement, as it is the pattern that’s important, not the physical movement. The horse needs to graze and move around on its own chosen pattern.
  • There are NO cases of colic, laminitis or gastric ulcers in wild horses.
  • In a herd/band situation, the head stallion keeps watch as the rest of the horses rest. When the stallion rests, the oldest mare takes his place to keep watch.


Next up we had Ludovig Calandreau present his findings on memory systems in animals and humans. Studies indicate that memory in humans and animals is not a unitary function. They have multiple memory systems relatively conserved across different species. Animals and humans have much the same memory systems (with the exception of those related to language and consciousness). Various studies were conducted were rodents were tested through various memory tests, and it was found different memory systems were used for some tasks, and others for different tasks. Also he noted that factors such as stress levels and age strongly influence the memory system.


The third presentation for the morning was by Mathilde Valenchon researching whether stress affects instrumental learning based on positive or negative reinforcement in interaction with personality in domestic horses. The research shows that stress has a powerful impact on learning in general, slowing it down significantly. When comparing positive and negative reinforcement learning when exposed to stress, her findings showed that the horses learned better by negative reinforcement. It was noted that the positive reinforcement was a food reward and that whilst stressed, the horse was not motivated by food. More research needs to be done on whether a tactile reward (scratching) would have had a more successful result.


Next up we headed to the large display arena built with the same wooden architecture, surrounded by grandstands with a huge chandelier hanging from the ceiling for a Cadre Noir de Saumur demonstration. The audience was treated to several demonstrations of French classical dressage; in-hand equitation showing Levades, Ballotades and Caprioles; long reining over obstacles; vaulting and much more. It was a great experience!


Before lunch we covered 3 more presentations including Sian Ellis’ research into whether food or tactile stimulation is more effective when training a horse to touch a target. The results showed that food was more effective, but also noted that perhaps 5 seconds of tactile stimulation was not long enough of a reward, and also that the horses used were from a rescue facility with probable damaging pasts and therefore may be less susceptible to touch.


Deborah Piette presented a methodology for continuous and automated monitoring of mental states in horses using wearable technology. Deborah came up with an equation to measure stress by measuring heart rate, and activity separately, then comparing the two. When heart rate was high, and activity was high, there was no recording as it is assumed that activity caused an increase in heart rate, however when heart rate was high yet activity was low, this was an indicator for stress. This reading was then used to measure stress when horses were taken through various obstacle tests. Whilst this is in the early stages, Deborah may have a method to measure the horse’s mental state in the future.


Janne Winther Christensen presented her findings on whether fearfulness affects learning ability in young horses. Various tests showed that horses with more explorative natures (willing to explore new stimuli on their own) were better at learning than those who were not willing to approach the objects due to fear.


The afternoon covered presentations by Lea Lansade and Alice Ruet on whether we can test personality in horses for suitability. Various character traits were measured. I will summarise this more tomorrow after their practical demonstration.


ESI student Leigh Wills conducted a study at a racehorse stud working with foals to find whether sex or sire had an impact on their ability to learn. Foals are trained to be approached, lead and have their feet handled using the principles of learning whilst with their mother. The findings showed no correlations between learning, their sex or sire.


Angelo Telatin and Tanja Bornmann presented separate research on riders’ knowledge of learning theory in practice, and the terminology. Angelo found that there was a significant lack of understanding when it comes to the practice of learning theory, and Tanja finding that there was an even lower understanding of the terms and definitions. Whilst ISES is growing and educating a lot of people, we still have a long way to go.


Hayley Randle presented the possibility of using a ridden horse ethogram to effect change in school horses wellbeing in a riding school. Research showed a significant improvement in the interactions between riders and horses after learning more about the sentience of horses. Riding is more than just sitting on the horse’s back!


Lastly, Rachel Lawson presented the feasibility of a grading system to for horses used in leisure riding. The response when surveying UK leisure riders was positive – leisure riders feel a grading system to evaluate the horse’s personality and ridden behaviour would be useful when purchasing a new horse. Implementing such a process may reduce welfare concerns and help lower wastage.


That’s all for today, we’re now off to discuss today’s presentations over a glass of French wine and a delicious meal in the beautiful Saumur!


Cheers, Sophie